Andreani Rustandi is an intern at the NYC Independence Party and IndependentVoting.org’ s headquarters in NYC. Originally from Indonesia, Andreani is studying economics and mathematics at NYU, where she is Junior. In reading Revolutionary and several reviews of the book, Andreani was reminded of The Pagoda that she read earlier this year. I asked her to write us about the book—another historical novel I have added it to my list to read! Thanks Andreani.
“The Pagoda by Patricia Powell (1998) tells a story of a Chinese woman, Lau A-Yin, who flees from China to Jamaica to escape poverty and arranged marriage. A-Yin disguises herself as a man and embarks on a ship, which transports Asian workers to the Caribbean. Nevertheless, Cecil, the captain of the ship, discovers A-Yin’s disguise, rapes and impregnates A-Yin. In order for A-Yin to take better care of his daughter, Cecil builds a store for A-Yin to tend to in Jamaica. The Pagoda tells the story of A-Yin’s life in Jamaica, but it also delineates Jamaica’s social condition in 1893. Jamaica under the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834; hence, Jamaica commenced to bring Asian workers, called indentures. A-Yin and the other characters illustrate how Asian indentures were often treated as a lower class than slaves, received low salaries, and faced racial discrimination from the white and black population in Jamaica. One example is when A-Yin’s store is burnt down unexpectedly, which A-Yin thinks is done because of spite. This incident shows the prominent hegemony of the white and black people towards the minority in Jamaica. The other Asian indentures also do not have the freedom to speak about their cultures and their backgrounds. Thus, The Pagoda is not merely a fiction novel, but it also portrays the historical racial tensions, social strata, and the struggle of Asian indentures in Jamaica.
Besides the delineation of historical phenomena, The Pagoda continuously deconstructs the common ideology of one’s sex, gender, and identity. While in Revolutionary Deborah ventures into the war as a man, A-Yin has to marry a woman and raise her daughter as a father. The Pagoda does not only critically analyze of what constitutes an individual’s identity through A-Yin character, but also through the ambiguous sexual orientation of A-Yin’s wife. It raises the question of the humans’ need to classify, label, and eventually establish the notion of what it means to be “normal”. The Pagoda speaks to the consistent issue in society, which is the limitation caused by the classification of races, genders, sexes, and the expected “normal” behaviors followed from one’s particular genders and sex. Even though society gives impressions of the complete freedom granted for each individual by emphasizing on freedom in some countries’ constitutions and establishing the notion of humans’ rights, the systems and ideologies in society, which ironically are humans’ constructions, restrict the amount of freedom an individual can have. These limitations in one’s freedom prevent an individual in exercising one’s own agency, defining one’s identity, and choosing one’s way to discover what it means to be a being, which are supposed to be humans’ personal right. Furthermore, A-Yin desire, which is to build a pagoda where Asian indentures can meet and share their experiences, illustrates that a person cannot escape his/her past. The Pagoda points out that instead of ideologies, an individual’s past plays a more significant role in shaping one’s being.
The Revolutionary also delineates the civil war historical phenomena and brings the issue of genders’ role. As such, Revolutionary and The Pagoda both depict the historical phenomena, portrays the difficulties that A-Yin in The Pagoda and Deborah in Revolutionary face in living as a male, and explore the profound issues that people often struggle with, which are the question of freedom, choice, and identity.”
REMINDER: Our conference call with Revolutionary’s author, Alex Myers is this Sunday at 7 pm EST. The call in number for the conference call is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#.